This is the time of year we hear a lot about traditions – spending time with family, participating in holiday activities and helping others who may not be as fortunate or who have fallen on hard times.
One tradition my family eagerly participates in is giving to the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, Toys for Tots program. We started several years ago when my two children were little.
Each year, they’d pick out toys or books that they’d want, and then donate them to Toys for Tots. Because my kids were making the decisions what to donate, I knew the toys were something that would be well received.
At first, they didn’t always understand why I asked them to pick out something they would like just to turn around and give it away, and, to someone they didn’t even know. However, as my children grew, this became an opportunity to talk about the importance of appreciating what we have and helping those less fortunate.
It’s now something they eagerly look forward to.
This year, in addition to our annual donation, my children joined me as volunteers at American Family’s Toys for Tots collection at the Employee Holiday Breakfast. We greeted families as they entered the breakfast and thanked them for their donations. It was a heartwarming experience to see the generosity of so many people.
The toys donated at American Family will join others in the area for distribution throughout Dane County.
Tracing its roots back to 1947 when the wife of a Marine Corps Reservist wanted to donate a doll to a needy child, the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve has been providing toys to children who might otherwise go without.
Since its beginning, the Toys for Tots Program has distributed more than 469 million toys to over 216 million less fortunate children.
In 2011, American Family launched the “Dreams Protected” advertising campaign. My work team decided to take it one step further and help others build dreams.
The East Property Survey Team recently spent an afternoon working with Habitat for Humanity of Dane County. Although the organization was chosen because of the nature of our work, it quickly became clear we would be getting a lesson in much more than construction. It was a lesson on building dreams.
We were able to meet the recipient of one of the homes under construction. The gentleman was an inspiration to us all.
In 2006, he fled Kosovo in search of a better life for himself and his daughter. His profile on the Habitat website indicated he had “dreamed of owning his own home for many years.” He is determined and has been working very hard to make it happen.
He is currently working two full-time jobs and is a single parent to his 9-year-old daughter. Although he already has a full plate, he must also spend 325 hours working for Habitat for Humanity. This is what is called “sweat equity” and ensures recipients are invested in the home that eventually becomes theirs.
His busy schedule doesn’t seem to bother him at all. He is simply happy that he and his young daughter will have a place to call home; something others often take for granted.
The afternoon was spent working with this wonderful gentleman under the direction of a Habitat for Humanity supervisor. Some of us were able to contribute a bit more skillfully than others, but we all had enthusiasm and willingness to lend a hand.
Our job that day was to help install the second story walls. The pre-assembled walls had to be lifted from the ground to the second level, carefully placed, and nailed together. A few others were busy helping to frame the first floor of another home in the area. It was great to see how quickly the home’s frame came together! The recipient’s determination and excitement was even better! We could literally watch his dream coming true before our eyes.
While our arms were sore by the end of the afternoon, it was a good pain. We were grateful to have the opportunity to contribute our skills to make a family’s dream of home ownership come true.
Several of us plan to volunteer with Habitat for Humanity again. If you are interested in helping others achieve the dream of home ownership, you can contribute financially, shop at their wonderful Habitat Restores, or volunteer your time individually or with a group. Check out Habitat for Humanity of Dane County for more information.
On Sept. 5, I participated in American Family’s Days of Caring by volunteering at the Second Harvest Foodbank in Madison, Wis. That afternoon, about 20 other coworkers and I packaged what seemed like thousands of pounds of generic Fruit Loops to be distributed to the hungry in Southwest Wisconsin.
Second Harvest Foodbank, southwestern Wisconsin’s largest hunger-relief organization, is a nonprofit organization committed to ending hunger in 16 southwestern Wisconsin counties through community partnerships. It serves nearly 141,000 people each year; 43 percent of whom are children.
From July 1, 2012 to June 30, 2013, Second Harvest - together with its more than 225 partner agencies and programs - provided 12.6 million meals to those facing hunger. Second Harvest is part of Feeding America, the nation’s largest hunger-relief charity with 202 member food banks across the nation.
Second Harvest has the volunteer packaging program down to a science. It provided hair nets, aprons and gloves among five tables. Each table had its own scale, scoop and automatic bag tie apparatus into which you fed the end of the bag once it was filled with cereal. Given the competitive nature of those in the legal profession, it soon became a race to see which table could fill bags the fastest.
Our table won.
After just our short stint at scoopin’ loops, our upper arms and feet were a little sore the next day. It made us appreciate the comfortable office chairs at American Family. It also gave us a great opportunity to get to know people we see every day, but don’t have a chance to connect with.
You don’t really know someone until you’re up to your armpits in cereal with them…
At the end of our shift, we talked to another group that had just finished packaging vegetables. They shared that they volunteer once a week for several hours. That sort of dedication is impressive, but not hard to understand after you experience first-hand such fun while at the same time doing something that will help so many people.
Editor’s note: Want to help? American Family Insurance Madison, Wis., offices will be collecting food and cash donations for the Share Your Holidays food drive to benefit the Second Harvest Food Bank. Donation bins are available through Dec. 9 at our Madison offices for anyone to drop off non-perishable food items. There are also containers for cash donations. Or, you can visit the Feeding America website to find local food banks near you.
Twelve years ago, I stepped out of my comfort zone and traveled alone to a place with the kind of reputation that would keep many people away. It was a risk that turned out to be life-changing.
I went to help build a home for a family in Juarez, Mexico, after reading an article about an organization called Missions Ministries, and decided to participate.
The entire family of seven had been living in a pallet home, barely the size of my youngest son’s bedroom. There were gaping holes in the roof, and the walls and the floor were made of dirt. The family had five children, the youngest only three weeks old. The mother was using a cardboard box as a crib for the baby, and the rest of the family slept on pieces of Styrofoam laid on the floor. There was no running water or electricity.
Children could only go to school if they could afford the required uniform. People in the community who were fortunate enough to find employment often made less than $1 a day.
The experience opened my eyes to a whole new world and gave me a new appreciation to the many blessings I take for granted every day.
The following year I took my somewhat reluctant husband with me. The year after that, we brought our then 4- and 6 year-old sons. We continued to go each year, bringing more and more family and friends. Our third son joined us when he was only 2 years old.
During the last decade or so, we have been privileged to build many, many homes. In addition, we helped build a library, provided many community outreaches and helped distribute donated food, medicine, school supplies and clothing. We have sponsored a student for the last four years and have had a couple of opportunities to visit her when we were in Juarez.
We’re also involved with a continuing Christmas box outreach. Every year we distribute empty Tupperware boxes with packing lists for different ages of children to family, friends, coworkers and members of our church who support the work we’re doing. We ask them to shop for their “assigned” age/gender child and pack the boxes with items such as soap, toothpaste, underwear, gloves, small toys, etc. Before Christmas, we drive down to Juarez with hundreds of these Christmas boxes for the children in the community. These children would otherwise not receive anything for Christmas.
Our travels to Juarez have given us a meaningful perspective on how fortunate we are to have roofs over our heads and meals on our table every night. It has taught my children the importance of volunteering and giving time to others. Finally, it has been a launching pad to other opportunities to volunteer in our own neighborhood and community.
As I watch our sons head off to school this year, I reflect not only on how many blessings I take for granted but also on how blessed our family is to have discovered the joy that comes with helping others when and where we can.
As a husband, a father, and someone active in the Madison, Wis. community, it’s shocking: Nearly 19,000 kids in our area are at risk for insufficient nutrition.
The first time I heard that statistic, I didn't believe it. Not in Madison. After all, we are home to a world-class university, a progressive state government, and our economy does better than most at weathering national economic downturns.
It’s shocking, especially to those of us who don’t think twice about a trip to the grocery store or a visit to one of the many farmers’ markets in the area. There are colorful mountains of fresh, wholesome food - right?
And yet 19,000 kids may not get the healthy food they need to build strong bodies and healthy minds. Studies suggest that kids who go hungry early in life are 2 ½ times more likely to have poor overall health 10 to 15 years later. Those are simply terrible statistics.
As a community, we have the financial resources and compassion, the knowledge and the spirit to fix this problem. I know we can do a better job to get kids the nutrition they need. United Way’s Healthy Food for All Children initiative is leading the charge and together we can do this. We may not be able to solve world hunger, but we sure can feed the hungry child next door.
American Family learned about this new initiative just as we were starting a charitable foundation with professional golfer Steve Stricker and his wife, Nicki. Although it’s very early in the foundation’s development, we know its focus is helping to build strong families and healthy kids. We’ve identified nutrition and overall wellness as a place to start.
It’s a perfect fit. The Steve Stricker American Family Insurance Foundation is pleased to make its first gift to the community through the United Way of Dane County’s Healthy Food for All Children initiative. We’re proud to help kick start this important work with a $50,000 gift. The initiative gets more fresh, healthy food to kids who need it right now and its 10-year plan includes measuring results so improvement can be maintained over time.
With your help we can achieve even more. Whether you donate, volunteer or educate others, why not help us? You can join in and support United Way of Dane County in this work by calling United Way 2-1-1 or log onto www.unitedwaydanecounty.org to volunteer or donate today.
Every child deserves the chance to achieve their dreams. Are you with us?
Editor’s note: United Way’s Healthy Food for All Children community plan is the result of a partnership between United Way, the Goodman Foundation and Community Action Coalition of Southeastern Wisconsin. It was introduced on June 24, and focuses on several strategies. It will enhance access to healthy foods for children and families and increase the capacity of neighborhoods and communities to support affordable healthy food choices. It will also maintain culturally appropriate healthy food during and after school, throughout summer programs and in childcare through expanded choices for students and integrated education on healthy living. More than 30 community leaders developed the plan that unifies the community in a common vision to increase options and availability of healthy food for children.
This first appeared as on op-ed in the Capital Times on July 17, 2013.